Testing The Raven Drone

General Electric, via Twitter

Testing The Raven Drone

Note that this quadcopter Raven, created for finding gas leaks, is distinct from the U.S. Army’s Raven fixed-wing drone, which finds enemies.

Drones can do many things people can’t. They can fly, which is neat, and they can carry chemical sensors, identifying airborne particles with far greater fidelity than human noses. And drones, unlike human workers, don’t have children to send to college, taxes to pay, or retirements to plan for–so they’re good for cutting costs. At least, that’s the pitch General Electric is making to oil companies, with their new leak-sniffing Raven drone.

GE is working on having Raven make methane inspections go three times faster, said Ashraf El-Messidi, a research engineer for GE working on the project. Under the current way, a worker must walk around the well with an infrared camera to check for leaks. And even if one is discovered, it works like a smoke detector, giving only a yes or no answer, but not saying how significant the leak might be, he said. In another month, GE will launch a third test drone, this one a black-and-red model with six sets of helicopter blades, each 21 inches long. Weighing in at less then 20 pounds, the drone can glide through the air at up to 50 miles an hour, powered by six rechargeable batteries. The true value in GE’s modified drone is being able to fly as long as 40 minutes, carrying a laser-based sensor that shoots back live methane data to an iPad-wielding worker on the ground.

The drone is designed to fly autonomously, checking waypoints set on a smartphone or tablet. The drone was debuted as part of GE’s new oil and gas research center in Oklahoma. According to GE, during tests at an oilfield in Arkansas in July, the drone was able to detect emissions, a useful tool for complying with environmental regulations.